PRIME Minister John Major has committed Britain to act as a bridge for Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary to join the European Community, if possible by the year 2000.
Mr. Major made the pledge during a tour of the former communist countries' capitals which ended May 29.
After the Eastern European trip a British official said a central preoccupation of the prime minister during his country's six-month presidency of the EC, which begins July 1, would be enlargement of the EC beyond its current membership of 12.
Major is under pressure from members of his ruling Conservative Party to resist pressures from other EC governments for a federal Europe.
"John Major is right to press for enlargement," says Bill Cash, a Conservative member of Parliament critical of European federalism. "Those who say they want a deeper EC before it becomes wider are really saying that they want a centralized Community."
By deciding to sponsor the EC membership aspirations of the three ex-communist states Major may be buying himself trouble during Britain's presidency of the Council of Ministers.
France, for example, is hesitant to accept that they will be ready to join by the turn of the century and may take some persuading to go along with the joint declaration Major has in mind.
"Poland is having trouble maintaining a government. Its neighbors Hungary and Czechoslovakia will take years to make democracy work effectively, and their economies must be given time to adjust to capitalism. It would be wrong to hurry the process," a French diplomat said May 31.
THE expectations of the three states were underlined however by Stanislav Gomulka, a senior economic adviser to the Polish government. "It is true that we have our problems, but we will continue having them if we are frustrated in our attempts to achieve fair treatment," he said.
Mr. Gomulka said the association agreements signed with the EC by Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary last year were "an important step," but they were not enough.
"A clear EC commitment that we shall be allowed to join the Community would be of great value. What we need is markets for our goods. Without them, democracy cannot be secure."
On his Eastern European tour, Major stressed his conviction that the Community is a bastion of democracy and that to be true to its own principles it must seek to help other European states committed to democratic government.
A British diplomat said: "The prime minister thinks it would be quite wrong to delay unnecessarily the entry to the EC of nations that have chosen the democratic road. When states like Austria, Switzerland, and Sweden are pressing to join, it makes no sense to place unfair obstacles in the path of countries that have rejected communism."
To reinforce his pledge that Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary will be among the new members, the prime minister invited their leaders to a summit meeting in London to discuss the issue. The summit is being planned for the autumn.
In Budapest British officials said privately that Hungary was likely to be the first ex-communist state to be ready to complete the transition from a command to a free-enterprise economy - a prerequisite of EC membership.
The British prime minister went to great lengths to highlight his determination to become the champion of the eastern democracies. In Prague, he signed a declaration with President Vaclav Havel formally nullifying the 1938 Munich Agreement in which Britain recognized Hitler's right to occupy parts of Czechoslovakia.
The agreement has long rankled the people of Czechoslovakia because one of the effects was that Britain left the country to its fate in the face of Nazi invasion.
Official sources in London also confirmed May 30 that Britain's 50 million pound ($91 million) "know-how" fund for East-Central Europe would soon be increased.
The fund pays for sending technical experts to the ex-communist states and bringing managers to Britain for training.